Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
In this dystopia, some people live in enclosed pods and spend their time in a virtual reality called the Realms. Other people live a more desperate existence in tribes exposed to the hostile atmosphere of the Aether sky, but some of these Outsiders have special enhanced senses that give them advantages. Aria is one of the Dwellers; when she gets kicked out of her home, she encounters Peregrine, an Outsider with a sense of smell so keen he’s basically a mind-reader. Their interests align, so they travel together as their feelings for each other grow.
The story is told with alternating third person point of view, described in prose that’s well above average for the genre. The environment is otherworldly and beautiful in its wild chaos, and the people who live there fit well into its scenic strangeness. There are a couple well-plotted surprises at the end, the kind I like because they seem logical and appropriate, yet original and unexpected.
I like when the big thematic ideas and the actions driving the plot are strongly connected, especially in dystopia novels. In this world, the people who live almost exclusively inside the virtual reality risk a disorder called Degenerative Limbic Syndrome, because the brain’s limbic system, or animal mind, stops working, and people go nuts. The book makes an argument for the value of real life, physical sensation, and work over illusory worlds and their seductive, easy, instant gratification, and Aria’s sense of wonder as she travels with Peregrine are also consistent with this theme.
Aria and Peregrine fall in love despite knowing their relationship cannot last. Peregrine feels cultural pressure to perpetuate his gift through breeding with a woman with similar talents, and has seen the negative consequences of failure to do so in his own family. The realism and heartbreak that this situation causes, and the characters’ strength in facing it, make their coupling all the more poignant. Doomed relationships like this seem somewhat rare in YA, where you’re more likely to find couples who fully expect to be together until death, though they’re only teens. Even more rare is when a couple without hope for a future siezes the day and consumates the relationship despite knowing it won’t last. The decision to have sex also fits well with Aria’s discovery of the world of real sensation outside the virtual Realms.
This is the first story in a series or trilogy, so I’m looking forward to later books. At the end of this book, both Aria and Peregrine make discoveries about themselves and their world, and recieve new roles that they must now live up to. It will be interesting to see how their relationship develops as they complete their new duties and face the challenges ahead.